Reptile whisperer

Published: September 7th, 2012

By: Sarah Sleeger.

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Jeff Burkhart holds a passion for creepy crawlers.

A  Western Fence lizard behaves like a pet in the hands of Jeff Burkhart, professor and Fletcher Jones chair of biology at the University of La Verne. The lizard is female due to its lack of two large scales on its underside and the blue markings on both its underside and backside. / photo by Katherine Careaga

A Western Fence lizard behaves like a pet in the hands of Jeff Burkhart, professor and Fletcher Jones chair of biology at the University of La Verne. The lizard is female due to its lack of two large scales on its underside and the blue markings on both its underside and backside. / photo by Katherine Careaga

by Sarah Sleeger
photography by Katherine Careaga­

Three distinct snakes reside in terrariums on the third floor of the University of La Verne Mainiero Building: an albino Burmese Python, a Boa Constrictor and a California King. Students crowd around the professor holding the eight foot long, bright yellow python, reaching out for a quick touch. They are clearly fascinated with the slithery creature. But the professor holding the animal seems to transcend fascination. There is a bond between him and the snake. “If you’ve worked with them, you develop kind of a sixth sense in what you can do,” says Jeff Burkhart, Fletcher Jones Professor of Biology at the University of La Verne.

By age 8, Jeff Burkhart already knew he had a passion for biology, nature and, more specifically, reptiles. Defining moments of his life are on display in a picture cube on his faculty office desk. First, a dated black and white photograph shows him with a snake in both hands. “I fell in love with reptiles and amphibians very early,” he says. Following his parents’ divorce, 4-year-old Jeff and his sister moved in with their grandparents. His grandfather, says Jeff, was a gruff German man who considered hard work to be important, but was a great naturalist. His grandfather’s picture is in the cube, too, his wrinkled face peering out into the present. It is clear he had an impact on Jeff’s life. “He gave me jobs; my jobs were to make sure the fruit eating birds didn’t eat the fruit.” Jeff tells how his grandfather would use a gun to chase the birds away. “I had to know what every bird ate,” Jeff says. His grandfather’s overreaction bothered him, yet he marks this as one of the defining moments that began his life as a biologist. “I spent my youth hiking in rural Chatsworth, so I would come home from school and climb up into the foothills.” This is when he truly discovered his love for reptiles and amphibians. “I was kind of a nerdy kid,” Jeff now laughs. As a young boy, he was very active in boy scouts, hunting and fishing. His original goal was to become a fish and game ranger.

Jeff Burkhart caught this Western Fence lizard on the south side of the University Sports Science Athletic Pavilion in the middle of an early spring day. Lizards are cold-blooded and emerge when the weather warms up. They will not appear in cold weather or extremely hot weather. / photo by Katherine Careaga

Jeff Burkhart caught this Western Fence lizard on the south side of the University Sports Science Athletic Pavilion in the middle of an early spring day. Lizards are cold-blooded and emerge when the weather warms up. They will not appear in cold weather or extremely hot weather. / photo by Katherine Careaga

For Jeff, nature is what makes the world go round. He received his undergraduate degree in insect and marine biology at Humboldt State University. There, a mentor encouraged him to go to graduate school to continue his study of biology. “He said you need to go to graduate school; you can do more,” Jeff recalls. After two months of traveling with his mentor researching insects, he received a National Science Foundation fellowship and earned a Ph.D. in insect ecology from Arizona State University. Nevertheless, he says, “I always retained that love for reptiles and amphibians; it was always in my mind.” He launched into teaching at St. Mary of the Plains College in Kansas. For 10 years, he taught a multitude of biology courses, plus, he began leading field courses in tropical biology where his students accompanied him on trips to tropical regions. Things were good for Jeff, but not for St. Mary of the Plains. Just a year shy of the school’s unfortunate closing due to financial struggles, he jumped to Phillips University in Oklahoma, where he taught biological sciences for 12 years, until shortly before that school closed as well. While the institutions that gave him these awards may not have lasted, the honors he garnered endure: “University Science Teacher of the Year” in 1992, from Oklahoma, which he believes may have helped land him the job at the University of La Verne in 1999 as an endowed professor. “This is the best school and the best colleagues,” Jeff says about La Verne. From 2004 to 2010, he held the Biology Department chair position. He continues to hold faculty rank as Fletcher Jones professor of biology, a title given to only two professors at the University of La Verne from the Fletcher Jones Foundation. While his La Verne focus is tropical biology, he also fuels his passion for herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. Jeff leads courses at Joshua Tree National Park through the National Park’s educational program. He also plans to start a complete biological survey of the San Gabriel Mountains since one has not been undertaken for the past 40 years.

Lizards as friends and foes

Jeff’s biological research sometimes becomes personal. About 15 years ago, he was hospitalized with salmonella poisoning from a student research project on lizards. To catch the small reptiles, Jeff uses a technique taught to him at age 8 by his grandfather. Using a wild oats sheath, he ties a slipknot noose at the end and slides it over the lizard’s head. He says this in no way hurts the reptile, but enables it to be easily caught. What landed him in the hospital is what he did next. Since it takes two hands to hold open the cloth bag after catching a lizard and another hand to hold the lizard, he began putting the lizards in his mouth to hold them for the bag transfer. It takes someone with devotion and courage toward reptiles to be able to accomplish this task without having a minor freak out. “When I was in the hospital—I was in the hospital for two days—the doctor came in and said, ‘You have a weird kind of salmonella that’s only found in reptiles. Do you have any idea how you could have gotten it?’” Jeff knew the answer to that question. This led to his next research project: finding out which species of lizards in the San Gabriel Mountains carry salmonella. “We discovered some species don’t carry salmonella at all—at least it couldn’t be detected—and others carry salmonella,” Jeff says. His student research group studied four species of lizards: the Western Fence, the Side-Blotched, the Southern Sagebrush and the Granite Spiny. It was discovered that two native lizards tested positive for salmonella: the Western Fence and the Granite Spiny. The Side-Blotched and the Southern Sagebrush tested negative.

Two summers ago, the biologist began working on research related to lizards and Lyme disease. At first, Jeff and his student team wanted to discover whether the blacklegged ticks that carry the Lyme bacteria were prominent on the Western Fence lizard. “We wanted to look at the distribution of ticks on this one kind of lizard,” Jeff says. This research led to the linkage between the lizard and Lyme disease. People live in fear of Lyme disease in parts of the United States, and carrier ticks need to be considered when doing outdoor activities. It is believed that at least half of the ticks on the East Coast host the disease, caused by the bacteria “Borella Burgdorferi,” which is carried by the blacklegged tick, also found in California. Yet, on the West Coast, Lyme disease is rarely a topic of conversation, which Jeff found, is thanks in large part to the Western Fence lizard. This lizard friend is the subject of his current research. The biologist and his students captured 75 lizards throughout the San Gabriel Mountains and removed the mites and ticks from their mite pockets, located behind the lizards’ ears. It was discovered that more of these tiny creatures were latched to male lizards than the females. This pocket is where the tiny creatures set up camp, possibly for months at a time. Jeff’s research suggests that the Western Fence lizard has a specific protein in its blood that sterilizes the Lyme disease bacteria in the tick. This protein essentially saves the West Coast from a disease that can cause lifelong health issues. His research continues in this area that may promote new scientific ways to curb Lyme disease.

Blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease are placed in a petri dish with a dime beneath them to give their size a sense of scale. These ticks measure less than one millimeter long, but the bacteria  they carry have the capacity to cause serious health problems. / photo by Katherine Careaga

Blacklegged ticks that carry Lyme disease are placed in a petri dish with a dime beneath them to give their size a sense of scale. These ticks measure less than one millimeter long, but the bacteria they carry have the capacity to cause serious health problems. / photo by Katherine Careaga

Slithering snakes

Jeff’s favorite reptile is the snake, and he has been handling them since he was young. “I caught my first rattlesnake when I was 12 years old,” he says. Following his stint at Oklahoma, he took on a teaching job at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, Ariz. There, he became part of a team that retrieved rattlesnakes from people’s yards. He collected dozens and dozens of these snakes. Although he is comfortable with them, he doesn’t capture venomous snakes more than he has to. He remembers a phone call he received last year from George Keeler, professor of journalism. George had found a rattlesnake in his yard. “I said, ‘Well, I will come by and get it for you and move it somewhere else.’ The whole family was standing out there watching me do it.” He uses a snake hook to catch them and then securely places them into a cloth bag. “I’ve handled hundreds of rattlesnakes and came close to being bitten one time.”

Jeff found himself in a bit of struggle in the past with, luckily, a nonvenomous snake. In Kansas, the school had a nine-foot reticulated python housed inside an old glass phone booth that was kind of a pet. To keep the snake happy and fed well, it was fed chickens. “I would have to take a long pair of forceps and hold the chicken in the cage, and he would strike it. I would always do it so he could not see my hand behind the tree limb [in the cage]. One time he knocked the chicken off the forceps, and I reached down to grab it. The snake then saw my hand and grabbed me. I got him out of the cage onto the floor, trying to pry his head off [my hand], and he got a coil around me—he wrapped around me. He had me pinned where I couldn’t move my arms.” Fortunately, just then two students walked into the lab and saw the desperate struggle on the floor. They were able to grab a metal bar and pry the snake off. Jeff says this scary incident did not deter his dedication to working with snakes. Case in point: He is the only one who regularly handles the three snakes that live in the La Verne Mainiero Building.

Teaching philosophy

Jeff is known as a student-centered teacher. Students pass him in the hallways, calling out “Hey Dr. B!” He says this is a nickname nearly every student calls him. “What I really try and do is get students excited about the subject, and I have great concerns about the fact that most of the world’s ecosystems are in a state of decline. My biggest concern is that this doesn’t seem to matter to a lot of people. It’s hard to value something if you’ve never been exposed to it.” To correct this, he frequently leads January Interterm trips to the tropics. Locations visited include Belize, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Kenya and Costa Rica. There, he introduces students to the beauty and diversity of life and starts an educational ripple effect. Their new found passion is shared with others to enhance understanding toward the threats facing these ecosystems. “We won’t protect anything unless people feel there is a reason to protect it,” Jeff says. “We are the only animal that has the ability to protect it or to destroy it.”

 Jeff Burkhart displays the Western Fence lizard’s mite pockets, located behind its ears. In the mite pockets, blacklegged ticks catch a free ride and feed on the lizard’s blood.  Burkhart’s continuing research suggests that the blood of these lizards sterilizes the Lyme disease causing bacteria carried by these ticks. / photo by Katherine Careaga

Jeff Burkhart displays the Western Fence lizard’s mite pockets, located behind its ears. In the mite pockets, blacklegged ticks catch a free ride and feed on the lizard’s blood. Burkhart’s continuing research suggests that the blood of these lizards sterilizes the Lyme disease causing bacteria carried by these ticks. / photo by Katherine Careaga

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